Sony // 1986 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Deren Ney (Retired) // February 27th, 2002
"The Labyrinth...where everything seems possible, and nothing is what it seems."
A labor of love and wicked fun from Jim Henson and George Lucas, Labyrinth is a charmingly low-key fantasy classic.
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) loves to play make-believe. She imagines herself a princess, far away from the rote and repetition of her life in suburbia. Before long, however, she's back on baby-sitting duty, as assigned to her by her frigid stepmother. Frustrated with being stuck in all night, Sarah fantasizes about her stepbrother being taken away from her by the Goblin King (David Bowie). Soon her dream becomes a nightmare, as the King does in fact pay a visit. He has her brother, and he instructs Sarah that she can get him back by completing the Labyrinth, a twisted maze in an unknown world. Sarah embarks earnestly only to find that the King has a few tricks up his ruffled sleeves, and she can't count on anything to make sense in this new reality.
Labyrinth is a little tough to review objectively, because I was such a fan of it as a kid. Like many who grew up in the '80s, in the heyday of monster makeup, I was fascinated by movie special effects. I think the same way some kids watch movies and want to be actors, other kids want to be doing the latex and goop, the fun stuff. I was one of those kids until I realized there was hard work involved, and Labyrinth is fun because it is the result of two such kids (Jim Henson and George Lucas) who actually had enough ambition to pull off something special. The personalities of the two men are all over the film, from Henson's Muppet-inspired characters to Lucas' talent for creating groundbreaking eye candy. Their final vision is particularly impressive when you consider that it was all done before computer animation. The opening credits feature a breathtakingly animated owl that I assumed was CGI until I realized it couldn't be. Just a few short years after this film came out in 1986, the makeup and animation technology it revolutionized was made all but obsolete by the flexibility and detail possibilities of computer animation. It's a shame, because while it's hard to argue with the astounding power of CGI, there's a charm to live action creatures interacting alongside humans that simply can't be replicated, no matter how good the animation is.
The central story of the film is a typical hero's journey, a Lucas staple. Sarah encounters friends, foes, giants, and bogs, all the while having trick after trick played on her in the ever-mutating Labyrinth. There's a series of mind-bending predicaments Sarah must navigate through, and she is soon learning that things aren't always as fair as she'd like them to be. Earlier in the film we glimpse Sarah's room, which is scattered with all the ingredients that make up the texture of the new world she finds herself in. These include what looks to be a muppet doll, a maze, and storybooks including Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Snow White (upon second viewing, note the soon-to-be-familiar character on the bookend). All of these elements figure prominently in the film's story and production design. The creatures of Labyrinth have the same quality of being both friendly and menacing in a way similar to the monsters of Wild Things. This was one of Henson's true gifts, which he displayed earlier in 1982s The Dark Crystal, and it's a concept often overlooked in modern fantasy characters. The logic of the Labyrinth and its inhabitants changes constantly for Sarah, as if she is through Alice's looking glass (look also for the guard dogs that look distinctly like canine face cards). Oz homages are all over the film too, from Connelly's Dorothy-esque performance to Bowie's shiny crystal balls (somewhere, Mick Jagger is smiling) that call to mind the bubble of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. In fact, the entire concept is fashioned after Oz, as it lets the audience decide if this merely was a dream, or a dream come to life.
The distinct stank of the 1980s is all over Labyrinth, so the film occasionally seems dated. But thanks to Bowie's songs and performance, there's a quirkiness to the Goblin King and his music that lets you believe that he would insist on mid-80s synthesizers no matter what century it was. The character of the Goblin King is an interesting vamp on the Ziggy Stardust character Bowie inhabited in the '70s, and Bowie seems to be having fun. He's hamming it up, but with a certain restraint that keeps the whole affair in balance. His mix of playfulness and menace is indicative of the film's tone, and is necessary to pulling the story off. He may not be the world's greatest actor, but he's very well cast here, and is ultimately one of the film's strongest aspects.
Labyrinth is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and it looks fantastic. Not only are well-composed shots given the breathing room they never got on VHS, but the disc features a sparkling, artifact-free transfer that brings the movie alive. I noticed no edge enhancement problems, and was truly impressed with the look of the film. The colors are consistent and pop out in a way I never recall from watching TV broadcasts or the worn copy they had at the town video store. Particularly improved is the "Fire Gang" musical number for "Chilly Down." It looks twice as crisp in the new transfer as it does in a clip of the scene shown on the making-of documentary. Movie effects from the '80s occasionally look much worse on DVD, because the clarity allows you to see anything unrealistic about the compositing (I'm looking at you, Ghostbusters). While this occasionally happens here, almost every effect in Labyrinth seems augmented by the clean transfer, particularly the intricate designs of the creatures.
The aforementioned making-of documentary investigates the process behind these effects, and fans of both the film and special effects in general will be delighted with how much information is included about the technical sides of the production. Every illusion, down to those Bowie balls, is explained by the giddy crew. It's also interesting to see a young Connelly talking about how she never wanted to be an actress, since she is now up for an Oscar. This piece is comparable in quality and depth to the much-lauded documentary on the DVD for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Both inside looks are worth watching no matter what your feelings on the films are, just to witness the dedication and craftsmanship of the folks involved.
The sound is presented only in 2.0 Surround, but sounds solid throughout. A 5.1 mix would have been nice, but this still manages to sound bright and full (probably the result of sound-obsessed Lucas). Other than the '80s feel of some of the Goblin King songs, the film is of contemporary sonic quality on this release.
Let's start with the obvious: It's a campy '80s fantasy movie. While this film charms me, and still impresses with the look it was able to achieve for the time, it isn't the type that is typically up my alley. I would have a hard time recommending this purely on its merits as a movie, because the plot is relatively standard-issue. If you don't have an affection for this film already, I'm not sure how enjoyable it is.
If you bothered to read this review, you probably grew up watching Labyrinth, and are wondering if it's worth checking out again on DVD. It is. If you ever enjoyed this film, you will appreciate the quality treatment it receives on this disc, and will relish the inside look the documentary gives into how it all came together. If you have never seen this film but are a fan of fantastical adventure and vistas, and you prefer a labored-over rubber mask to the limp computer effects of Harry Potter, check out this film.
Despite accusations of black magic, Labyrinth is cleared on all charges and is free to find its own way out of the courtroom.
Review content copyright © 2002 Deren Ney; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailers
* Inside The Labyrinth Making-Of Documentary
* Labyrinth Fan Page